Singer/songwriter/pianist Tom Waits is more than a chip off the Randy Newman block. Though he sounds like a boozier, earthier version of same and delights in rummaging through the attics of nostalgia, the persona that emerges from this remarkable debut album is Waits’ own, at once sardonic, vulnerable and emotionally charged. His voice is self-mocking, bordering on self-pity, and most of his songs could be described as all-purpose lounge music … a style that evokes an aura of crushed cigarettes in seedy bars and Sinatra singing “One for My Baby.” Though it would sound like an unpromising idiom in which to work, what Waits does with it is very daring and almost entirely successful. In both his songs and in his lazy, strolling piano playing, he parodies the lounge music sub-genre so perfectly that we wonder if he’s putting us on or if he’s for real, and it is his especial triumph that in the end he has it both ways: He is able to deliver whole both the truth and the sham of the music.
“Grapefruit moon and one star shining/Shining down on me/Heard that tune and now I’m pining/Honey can’t you see.” Waits sings these corny lines with such conviction that the cut comes off as not just a wry pastiche of nostalgia but the essence of nostalgia itself. The language of cliche is transmuted into the super-articulate vehicle for the expression of gut feeling. It’s no wonder then that Waits’ personal narratives are ultimately not all that different in spirit from his parodies, for they too are stamped with the same emotional realism. In particular, Waits is master of the pictorial vignette that crystallizes the emotions of a specific common experience in a uniquely moving way.
“Ol’ 55,” one of the album’s finest cuts, is a prime example; it being the rapturous evocation of driving the freeway in the early morning in a state of post-coital euphoria: “Now the sun’s comin’ up/And I’m riding with Lady Luck/Freeway, cars and trucks/Stars beginning to fade, and I lead the parade.” Just as compelling, but this time painfully so, is the ballad (with lovely guitar accompaniment by Shep Cooke), “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You.” In this story about meeting eyes with a girl in a bar, having wild romantic fantasies, but finally being too shy to pick her up. Waits doesn’t just sing the song, he phrases it like the interior monologue of a method actor:
Well if you sit down with this ol’ clown
I’ll take that frown and break it
… Well, I turn around to look at you
And you light a cigarette
I wish I had the guts to bum one
But we’ve never met.
Melodically, it is the album’s most beautiful song.
The Randy Newman influence is most apparent in “Lonely,” a sustained riff on a phrase from “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Again, Waits faces down the problem of expressing extreme emotion and solves it by being supremely inarticulate: “Lonely, lonely, lonely/Lonely eyes, lonely face, lonely, lonely in your place,” he moans, and succeeds in communicating the core of his feeling without our being embarrassed for him.
Though many will resist Waits’ sensibility as too self-indulgent, there is a consistent humor and sense of the absurd in his work that raises it above the level of banal kvetching. Like Loudon Wainwright, who offers a more sophisticated variety of tragicomedy, Waits dances on the line between pathos and bathos without going too far in the wrong direction. Both singers know how and when to ham it up; both succeed on their instinctive acting ability as much, if not more than through musical intuitiveness.